IN-DEPTH COVERAGE: Zehm Family Settles For $1.67M And An Apology - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

IN-DEPTH COVERAGE: Zehm Family Settles For $1.67M And An Apology

Six years after her son, Otto Zehm, died following a violent confrontation with Spokane Police officers, Ann Zehm will receive a formal apology from the City of Spokane. Six years after her son, Otto Zehm, died following a violent confrontation with Spokane Police officers, Ann Zehm will receive a formal apology from the City of Spokane.

SPOKANE, Wash. - Six years after her son, Otto Zehm, died following a violent confrontation with Spokane Police officers, Ann Zehm will receive a formal apology from the City of Spokane.

The Zehm family estate reached an out-of-court settlement Tuesday for $1.67 million in the civil rights and wrongful death civil lawsuit against nine Spokane Police officers. The settlement figure includes costs for damages, medical bills, and attorneys fees to the Zehm family estate.

The deal also includes a recommendation for crisis intervention training for all police officers within the next two years, up to $50,000 for a consultant to advise the City on its use-of-force policies, and a recommendation for the Spokane Park Board to name a pavilion in Zehm's honor. These additional agreements bring the estimated value of the settlement to $2 million.

Zehm was a 36-year-old mentally ill janitor who was confronted by several police officers inside of a Zip Trip convenience store on March 18, 2006. Police mistakenly believed Zehm was a theft suspect. Officer Karl Thompson was the first police officer to arrive on scene. He beat Zehm with a baton and shocked him with a taser. Shortly after, several other officers arrived. Surveillance store video captured most of the confrontation. Zehm died two days later.

Tuesday's settlement arrived two days after mediation from U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan, from Oregon, as well as Ford Elsaesser, an attorney and mediator from Idaho.

Judge Hogan said the letter of apology, written by Mayor David Condon, is an attempt to bring peace and closure for the struggles Ann Zehm has gone through during the last six years. It's the first time the city has formally apologized for its actions related to Zehm's death.

Mayor David Condon said, "Today we not only have finality for its citizens, but also for Mrs. Zehm. Truly we cannot change the past but we can acknowledge our mistakes and move forward for a better future for our community."

The Mayor added, "Like I've said many times, my top priority is to continue to build the confidence in our police force and our law enforcement and this is one step in that direction. It's a good day for Spokane."

The lawsuit, filed in 2009 by attorneys Jeffry Finer and Breean Beggs on behalf of Ann and the rest of Zehm's estate, originally requested $2.9 million dollars. Over time, that number grew to $14.5 million.  Tuesday Beggs said, they first filed on Ann's behalf because she wanted the city to acknowledge its mistakes as well as make sure "that there were enough changes in policies, and training, and city attitude that it would be unlikely that any other family in Spokane would go through what she had to go through."

Of the $1.67 million dollar settlement, Beggs said, "The amount of money in this case is more money for a civil rights case settlement that's ever been paid in this city as far as I know and one of the highest - if not the highest - in the Northwest but Mrs.. Zehm was never in it for the money. She wanted the change. She was waiting for six years now for the powers to be that said 'It was wrong what happened; let's make sure this never happens again."

Beggs added that it was the several non-monetary agreements in the settlement, including the apology, crisis training for officers, and consulting on use-of-force policies that were crucial toward a resolution. 

Beggs continued, "One of things we're happiest about is that all patrol officers will have the training they need so that when they encounter people who might be a little bit different, might communicate a little bit differently,  that they won't have to die for that difference."

Spokane City Council members still have to approve the settlement for it to be finalized but Mayor Condon was confident they would in their May 21 council meeting. 

The civil settlement is separate and apart from the criminal case relating to Otto Zehm. Former Spokane Police Officer Karl Thompson was convicted by a federal jury last November for excessive use of force as well as lying to investigators about the violent encounter with Zehm.

Thompson has yet to be sentenced.

A U.S. District Court judge postponed the sentencing after an expert witness claimed that federal prosecutors incorrectly summarized his expected testimony.

Former Spokane Mayor Mary Verner posted this comment on her Facebook page Tuesday:

"The entire community laments the tragedy of Otto Zehm's death. Although the Zehm attorneys did not submit a meaningful settlement demand after the criminal trial ended last fall, I'm glad the City continued on course to mediate the claims. No amount of money can undo all the damage, but it's good to have this legal matter finally concluded."
 
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